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Stephen Strasburg’s record contract shows why Phillies jumped at Zack Wheeler

The free-agent pitching market has exploded, which helps to explain why the Phillies jumped last week at a deal with Zack Wheeler.

Stephen Strasburg has reportedly agreed to a record contract to stay with the Washington Nationals.
Stephen Strasburg has reportedly agreed to a record contract to stay with the Washington Nationals.Read moreRobert Gauthier / MCT

SAN DIEGO — Five days ago, the Phillies agreed to the third-largest free-agent contract in club history for a pitcher who has neither worked 200 innings in a season nor made an All-Star team.

Now, though, there’s context for the Zack Wheeler signing.

Stephen Strasburg rocked the first day of the winter meetings at the Manchester Grand Hyatt by agreeing Monday to re-sign with the Washington Nationals, according to multiple reports. The deal, reportedly worth $245 million over seven years, is a free-agent record for a pitcher, surpassing David Price’s $217 million overall value and Zack Greinke’s $34.4 million average-annual value.

But Strasburg’s record is expected to last only until Gerrit Cole, the most-prized pitcher on the market, reaches agreement on a contract. That hasn’t happened yet, but hey, it’s barely lunchtime at these meetings.

Strasburg’s deal sets up a potential bidding war for Cole between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels, among others. The 29-year-old right-hander is two years younger than Strasburg. He also is coming off a season in which he went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings and a postseason for the ages for the Houston Astros.

It also helps to explain why the Phillies jumped at the chance to sign Wheeler, even if it meant paying him more than they initially had in mind.

Desperate to add starting pitching behind Aaron Nola, the Phillies determined that the cost to acquire Cole and Strasburg would exceed most industry predictions. Given their other needs — a shortstop or third baseman, at least one more starter, two or three relief pitchers — they struck a deal with Wheeler that will pay him $23.6 million per year, edging the $23.3 million annual salary that Patrick Corbin got from the Nationals last year.

The Phillies believed that Wheeler was not only the best pitcher in the second tier of free agents but also a better value than lefty Madison Bumgarner. Although Bumgarner has a longer track record and is the best postseason pitcher of his generation, he has thrown more than 1,000 innings more than Wheeler.

One executive speculated that Strasburg’s contract puts Bumgarner in line for a nine-figure deal that might wind up rivaling Wheeler’s.

Strasburg’s decision to stay put assures that the World Series-champion Nationals will maintain their greatest organizational strength, namely an ace-filled rotation that also includes Corbin and Max Scherzer. But it also likely means that the Nationals won’t be able to re-sign free-agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has drawn interest from the Texas Rangers, among others.

Rendon would satisfy the Phillies’ need for a third baseman and another heavy hitter in the middle of the lineup. But signing Rendon would put the Phillies over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold before they address their bullpen and the rest of the starting rotation.

Managing partner John Middleton said recently he would green-light going over the threshold only if it means turning the Phillies into an instant World Series contender. It’s unclear that ownership believes they’re one player away from reaching that status.

The Phillies also are confident that top prospect Alec Bohm can stay at third base, an opinion that isn’t shared by many rival talent evaluators. Bohm is expected to open the season in triple-A but could be in the big leagues at some point in 2020.

“We still view Alec Bohm as a third baseman," general manager Matt Klentak said last week. "We did the day that we drafted him. We think he’s made impressive strides in the minor leagues in a relatively short period of time. If he continues on his development path, I think it’s very reasonable he could factor in for us next year. That’s something we need to consider as we make the rest of our offseason decisions.”